Illegal weapon Munich attack reignites gun debate

The deadly shooting in Munich on Friday night has renewed the gun control debate among German politicians, many of whom are also calling for better mental health treatment.
Flowers outside Munich's Olympia shopping center, where 10 people including the shooter died on Friday. Photo: DPA/Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

The swift actions of the Bavarian police on Friday night showed that they've learned something from France and Belgium about how to respond to mass casualty attacks.

Unlike in Brussels after the airport attack, the Munich subway system was shut down immediately. Unlike in Paris, there were reinforcements on hand almost immediately from other federal states. In a very short time, Germany's special GSG9 counter-terrorism force and Austria's elite Cobra counter-terrorism special operations squad were also on the scene.

And everything went smoothly, despite thousands of emergency calls – many of them false alarms – and misinformation spread through the social media networks Twitter and Facebook.

The killer has been identified as Ali David S., an 18-year-old dual national of Germany and Iran, who was born in Germany and had lived there his entire life. He killed nine people and injured dozens of others near the Olympia shopping mall in the Bavarian capital before killing himself.

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel spoke to frightened citizens from his heart, when it became clear that the shootings in Munich were not a terrorist attack, but a one-man rampage. He thanked God it was not an ISIS attack.

It should not be possible to send a firearm by post within Europe. Stephan Mayer, CSU Spokesman for Interior

But for the relatives of the victims, who were mostly young people, that's no consolation. They want answers to how it was possible, after school shootings in Erfurt in 2002 and Winnenden in 2009, for another armed teenager to commit mass murder.

The young man's motives are still unclear, but that hasn't stopped politicians from calling for change and instrumentalizing the attack to further their agendas.

On Twitter, the far-right Alternative for Germany party thanked Chancellor Angela Merkel's inclusive politics for “the terror in Germany and Europe.” There were also renewed calls for the domestic deployment of the army. Domestic affairs spokesman for the Social Democratic Party, Burkhard Lischka, called this an “outlandish proposal” which would ultimately only be “window dressing.”

Interior Minister Thomas de Mazière, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, warned against hasty calls for new gun control measures. He was among the European Union interior ministers who agreed on new weapons laws at the beginning of June in response to the Paris attacks.

These stipulate that sport shooters and hunters will have to renew their weapons permits every five years. Until now, they only had to make an initial registration of their guns. Every three years they will also have to prove that they're still actively using their weapons. Blank pistols and gas pistols, which have long been available without restriction to those over the age of 18, must be registered with the authorities from now on.

In addition, the requirements for the purchase of weapons online are to be tightened. The E.U. member states are required to ensure that so-called decorative firearms can no longer be converted into active weapons.

The problem is that none of this helps much when 95 percent of gun crime is committed with illegally obtained weapons, according to Mr. Lischka. The marketplace for these weapons is the so-called "dark net," only accessible with special software. According to the Federal Office of Criminal Police, this has become a key area for all types of crime – drugs, counterfeiting, and weapons dealing.

The Munich shooter also bought his Glock 9mm and 300 rounds of ammunition via the dark net. The pistol, with Czech identification marks, had been a theater prop and was later reconverted into an active weapon.

This corresponds with an answer to a query by the Greens back in February, to which the German government responded that “the illegal reactivation of decorative and ceremonial firearms accounts for a not insignificant part of gun crime.”

Conservatives are now also demanding stronger measures against weapons dealing on the internet.


25 p07 Gun Ownership in Germany-01


“It shouldn't be possible to send a firearm by post within Europe,” said Stephan Mayer, the interior spokesman for the Christian Socialist Union, the Bavarian sister party to Ms. Merkel's CDU. He recommended that firearms should be sent to police stations, where the purchaser would then have to be identified and the weapon legitimized. But whether that would really have an impact on criminal activity is questionable.

There's also the question of whether the 18-year-old shooter's unraveling could have been detected sooner. On Sunday, the Bavarian state criminal police explained that he had visited and photographed the place in Winnenden where, in March 2009, a 17-year-old shot 15 people before killing himself.

The Munich shooter had apparently been bullied in school and was undergoing psychiatric treatment, including two months as an inpatient, for “social phobias” and depression.

Mr. Gabriel said the state and society must do more to “observe and intervene” in such cases.

Mr. Lischka said that little could actually be done to prevent such attacks in the future. Although it made sense to introduce stricter controls after a depressive copilot crashed a German Wings flight into a mountainside in France, he said, you can't put hundreds of thousands of people suffering from a widespread disease like depression under suspicion.

Stricter reporting criteria for psychiatrists and social workers could lead to the unwanted consequence that those suffering from mental illness might stop seeking professional help.

The question remains, what role the internet played in Friday's rampage. Investigators say that he was obsessed with the details of Anders Behring Breivik's massacre in Norway five years earlier, and that he was writing his own manifesto. The state attorney also said that Sonboly was a regular player of violent online games like “Counterstrike.”

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziére and his colleague Volker Kauder, who leads the ruling conservative parliamentary group, blame this kind of video game for violent crimes such as the attack in Munich.

But even here, one can't apply a principle of general suspicion, according to Konstantin von Notz, the internet policy specialist of the Greens parliamentary group. The internet is just the way people get their information in the 21st century, he said.

“In earlier times, violent perpetrators cut out newspaper articles and pinned them to the wall,” he said.

And it's an illusion to believe that by banning “shooter” games that the problem will be solved. Of course it's not a good thing if young people spend hours playing those games, but 99.99 percent of those people will never go on a shooting rampage, Mr. von Notz added.

Yet the danger remains. After the deadly attack in Munich on Friday, there were two other disturbing incidents that followed over the weekend. On Sunday, a 21-year-old man killed a pregnant woman and inured 5 others with a machete in the southwestern city of Reutlingen. Then later that evening, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee blew himself up near a music festival in the Bavarian city of Ansbach, injuring 12.


Frank Specht is based at Handelsblatt's Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. Peter Thelen writes about social security systems, the job market and labor topics.To contact the authors: [email protected][email protected]